How It All Began
The Skimmilk Farm Writers' Workshop began in 1974, when Boston poet Jean Pedrick invited two of her friends to visit her Brentwood, New Hampshire, summer home to share their poetry. The two friends were Elizabeth Knies and Marie Harris, whom Pedrick knew from her association with Alice James Books, established in part with the goal of publishing quality poetry by women. Pedrick was among the founders of Alice James and a former editor at Houghton Mifflin who, in 1944, wrote to Elizabeth Bishop to suggest she submit a book-length collection of her work for the Houghton Mifflin Award.
The summer home was an abandoned farmhouse that Pedrick and her husband, Frank Kefferstan, had purchased years earlier. Every year by Memorial Day weekend, Jean had the house opened and the Monday workshops were held each week until Labor Day weekend, occasionally later, weather permitting. As the years went on, the number of participants grew, and sometimes diminished, then grew some more. On any given Monday, as many as a dozen or as few as five or six poets and writers met at the farm to share their work in an environment unlike any most writers had ever experienced.
What set the Skimmilk workshop apart was largely its spirit-participants didn't try to tear each other's work apart; there was no mean-spiritedness, no petty jealousies or overarching egos. Not that the poets weren't willing to parse each line, phrase, word choice, line break, or title, for they were willing to offer each piece their absolute attention and thoughtful scrutiny, but the aim was never to draw blood.
When asked about the group's methods, or protocol, in an interview with Sebastian Matthews for Rivendell Journal, Pedrick said, "The rules, surely, are unwritten." She went on to add that the first unwritten rule was "no barracuda," explaining that "The concept of the workshop as arena, in which one may kill or be killed, never made any sense."
The spirit of the workshop has been proven fruitful: Marie Harris is author of numerous collections of poetry and children's books and a former poet laureate of New Hampshire; Elizabeth Knies too has published several collections and was poet laureate of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2008, as were John Perrault and Mimi White in previous years. Charlie Pratt recently won the Finishing Line Press' annual chapbook contest for his Still Here. And Nancy Mairs, Pedrick's niece, is a nationally renowned poet and essayist.
When Pedrick passed away following a stroke in July 2006, her fellow writers were left quite bereft, yet the group has managed to continue meeting, sometimes at the generous behest of Emily Kefferstan, Pedrick's granddaughter and heir to Skimmilk Farm, other times at various members' homes. The previous summer, documentary filmmaker Ken Browne had come to Skimmilk Farm to film the group during a workshop. Initially planned as a personal project, a birthday gift for Pedrick, the film evolved into a documentary first aired on New Hampshire Public Television, then nationally on PBS stations.